Scripps Spelling Bee's head judge brings history, encouragement to spellers

When spellers get a word wrong, there's one person there who helps them look on the bright side: Mary Brooks, the Bee's head judge.
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Posted at 1:58 PM, May 29, 2024

For the competitors at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, their hopes and dreams of winning can all be dashed with one sound: the sound of a bell. When they hear it, they know they got the word wrong.

"So, I did have to hear the bell last year," said Aditi Muthukumar, a speller from Colorado, who is on her second trip to the Bee. "I was out in quarterfinals and it's always a pretty negative feeling, like knowing that the trophy is not going to be yours this year."

It can be a tough moment for anyone messing up, especially in front of an audience. Before they go, though, there's one person there who helps them look on the bright side: Mary Brooks, the Bee's head judge.

"One perseveres," she said with a laugh, when asked how she ended up in the job.

Brooks first started working with the Bee back in 1972. She's seen a lot of changes there over the years, but she said one thing remains constant.

"The very basic essence of this has never changed, which is young people learning to spell words and demonstrating their knowledge," Brooks said.

When she became head judge in 2005, Brooks started using what's since become the official Scripps National Spelling Bee bell, similar to the kind that would be found at the front desk at a hotel.

"It's meant to be kind of a soothing sound as opposed to a buzzer or something that would really be jarring," Brooks said.

The bell has a rich history all its own.

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"I came by it rather fortuitously. My late husband's mother had it in a curio cabinet and, when she died in 1998, we were going through her things and it was in the very back of this cabinet," Brooks said. "No one in his family even knew about it or had any idea what, how she got it or where it was."

The bell itself is old: A tiny engraving indicates it's from 1865. No one really knows where it came from, or what it was originally used for, but its distinct sound has now attracted its own fan club, as Brooks found out when she couldn't make it to the Bee in 2014.

"They got more comments on that from people listening — 'Where's the bell? That's not the bell!'" Brooks said. "I completely forgot that the bell was just as important as I was."

However, the spellers said they do understand her importance, and value the parting words that she offers as they leave the stage.

"She was still pretty encouraging about it — like 'The bell isn't an end-all, be-all,'" Muthukumar said.

Brooks said she felt those parting words have become an integral part of the Bee.

"We started very small with very brief comments, and it felt instantly so much better to me than watching that child stand there and then be escorted off with nothing more than the sound of the bell and the correct spelling," Brooks said. "I taught eighth graders for 34 years, so I have great empathy for this age group. It's not hard at all for me to think of something to say to them."

You can watch the Scripps National Spelling Bee semifinals on Wednesday, May 29 at 8 p.m. ET on the ION channel. Tune into ION for the live finals of the Bee on Thursday, May 30 also at 8 p.m. ET.

Scripps News is a subsidiary of the E.W. Scripps Company, which runs the Bee on a not-for-profit basis.